March of the Penguins, Which Led to a Friendly Panda and Finally a Recovery

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April of 2012 was a rough month for SEO. We had three updates all within nine days: Panda on the 19th, Penguin 1.0 on the 24th, and then a Panda refresh on the 27th.

It was like an algo sandwich, with a side of panic. Prior to that time, I had already been helping several clients with websites hit by Panda, but the Penguin update was new (and extremely intriguing). And as many webmasters found out, Penguin could be absolutely catastrophic SEO-wise.

After the 24th, I became fascinated with the Penguin update and worked tirelessly to understand what was going on. I’ve now analyzed many domains hit by Penguin (115+); you can read more about my initial Penguin Findings and then my update from the over optimization frontlines. Both provide insights based on my analysis of sites hit by Penguin. It wasn’t long after the 24th that I started helping companies that were hit by Penguin.

An Interesting Case: Panda, Panda, and Pandeguin

One of the emails I received came from a start-up in San Francisco that was clearly in trouble SEO-wise. They had three domains in use, and all three were hit during that nine-day period. To make matters worse, all three were hit by Panda, and one was hit by both Panda and Penguin (or what I call Pandeguin).

Since it’s important to understand which algorithm update hit your site, I analyzed both Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics data to confirm which algorithm update hit which domain. My analysis confirmed the Panda, Panda, and Pandeguin situation. Needless to say, we had a lot of work to do.

The Third Domain Was Hit By Both Panda and Penguin

Website Hit by Panda and Penguin

The Power of a Determined CEO

From the very first email and conference call, my client (the founder and CEO of the start-up), was adamant that they never, ever, used spammy link tactics. They never paid for a link, never participated in a link network, never used any sort of link scheme, etc. Sure, we’ve all heard that before, but his tone was serious, and he swore up and down that they never cheated. Although I could clearly see problems with their link profile, I believed him, and wanted to help them recover.

It’s important to highlight the CEO’s determination and resolve. It’s a core reason I wanted to help them, and it would end up paying huge dividends for them down the line. He told me, “We are going to be the best client you’ve ever had. We will take action, and move quickly based on your recommendations. We are determined to fix this situation for the long term.” Again, I believed him. And so the work began.

First Step: Address Panda

I won’t explain all of the details for each of the three domains in this post, since that’s not the point. In a nutshell, all three domains were hit by Panda and were very similar in structure. They had the same layout, navigation, types of content, etc., but they simply targeted three different markets.

After analyzing each site, I could see some glaring issues related to Panda that were the same across the domains, and we moved quickly to address them. We worked hard on analyzing each of the sites, addressing engagement issues, addressing affiliate problems, refining the navigation, etc. The same changes were made to all three domains.

2 out of 3 Ain’t Bad

The Panda refinements were completed relatively quickly, but the third domain needed additional work since it was hit by both Panda and Penguin. On June 25, two of the three domains recovered from Panda. It was awesome to see organic search traffic bounce back, especially when I’ve seen some sites take much longer to return. You can read my post about six months with Panda to learn more about that. We were all excited, but there was still one domain to deal with. Remember, it’s the one hit by Pandeguin.

Two Sites Recovered from Panda on June 25

Panda Recovery on June 25

The third domain not recovering was totally expected by me, since we hadn’t handled the most serious link problems with the domain yet. After an inbound link analysis, I found some classic problematic links (from link networks, spammy pages, etc.)—you know, the ones that Penguins love to feed on. If you don’t know what I am referring to, then think about a website with hundreds of pages of thin content, that includes many exact match anchor text links, all to different sites, across different industries, and within content that didn’t relate to the link.

Remember the CEO who swore up and down that they didn’t break any rules?  Well, we had some pretty interesting Web conferences where I shared my screen. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I found this link on {domain A}. The site is filled with spammy links and is part of a larger link network. Here is a link to your site, using exact match anchor text. Do you know how the link got there?

CEO: Glenn, I have never seen this site, this link, or the larger link network. I have no idea how that got there and who set it up. I know this doesn’t look good, but I’m telling you the truth.

The good news is that we identified the Penguin problem.  The bad news is that we had to remove those links, and some of the sites would be hard to deal with. I could just tell.

Down The Penguin—I Mean Rabbit—Hole

The CEO wanted to handle the link takedown notices via his email account, which I always think is a smart way to go. So, I would hunt down the links, the domain owners, any other contact information, etc. and the CEO went to work contacting them. He was relentless, which was awesome. It was amazing to see the responses come in; some took down the links at first request, while others gave us the runaround. But what was even more fascinating were the clues that came in one by one regarding who set up the links and how they were set up. We all felt like a special CSI unit, less the dead bodies.

I’ll never forget the email that rolled in on a Saturday evening from the CEO. The subject line was “Mystery Solved” and it seemed that our detective work paid off. One of the website owners we contacted spilled the beans about who set up the paid links. He also noted the date the link was set up. And the date was the key data point we needed.

Why was the date so important?  Because my client didn’t own the domain name at that time!  The spammy links were all set up prior to my client owning the domain name. That made complete sense given how convincing the CEO was that they never participated in spammy link tactics.

Note: I never asked if the start-up owned the domain from the start. I just assumed they did, based on my previous conversations with them. That was a mistake, and I should have done that earlier on. That said, our process ended up working well, since we found out anyway.

Penguin Update Mystery Solved
Using this new data, we started to check The Wayback Machine to see when the other spammy links were set up. And you guessed it … they were set up prior to my client owning the domain name. Excellent! This will surely go in the reconsideration request (more on that soon).

So, to quickly recap:

  • My client contacted the website owners about removing bad links.
  • Many spammy links were removed.
  • Several clues were stored away in our CSI lab.
  • We were ready to rock and roll with the next Penguin update.

Now That’s a Reconsideration Request!

If you have been hit algorithmically, and not by a manual action, then a reconsideration request won’t help you. Sure, I know that, but I’m a firm believer that you should tell Google everything you did to clean up a serious SEO situation, and that’s especially true when you go through the process we did. It was long, frustrating, and grueling. So I helped the CEO craft a thorough reconsideration request that contained the entire story, all the details, screenshots, who is data, my baby pictures, etc. 🙂

No fewer than five times did the CEO ask me, “Glenn, are you sure this is the right way to structure a reconsideration request?” It seemed long, with many details, and he was fearful that this wasn’t the way to go, but that’s exactly what I wanted Google to see. All the hard work that went into fixing the problem.

Yes, we were adding a lot of data, but I wanted Google to have every bit of evidence to show that my client worked his tail off in order to rectify the Penguin situation. For example, they spent countless hours hunting down links, nuking the links they could, and finding the people who layered a Penguin peck on top of a Panda stomp.

The reconsideration request was submitted on August 8th, and we heard back from Google in a few days. “No manual action has been taken on your site.” I fully expected this and explained that to my client prior to the submission. I also explained that we should brush that off and feel good that Google had what it needed. Now, we just needed another Penguin update so we could be in the clear.  Recovery was close—I could feel it.

Penguins Get By with a Little Help from Their *Panda* Friends?

And now the core point of the story. I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get here, but I had to give you a solid rundown of the situation first.  The first two domains were doing well at this point. Both recovered from Panda, and we were planning our next steps, but the site that was hit by Pandeguin was still in bad shape. During the three Panda updates since April 27th, nothing had changed … nothing at all. But again, we needed a Penguin refresh, right? Well, that’s what I thought until Panda 3.9.1.

The latest Panda update arrived on August 20, and I admit, I really wanted to hear from a different black-and-white animal. I wanted a Penguin refresh, like many other SEOs who are helping Penguin victims, but something strange happened. The third domain finally spiked. I didn’t rush to conclusions and waited to see how the next few days went.

After a few days of sustained rankings and traffic, it was clear that the site had recovered. So then I waited for official confirmation that a Penguin refresh occurred. I never heard that update from Google. I stalked Barry Schwartz, pinged several other SEO’s I knew, and the answers were all negative. There was not an official Penguin update—at least we thought.

The Third Domain Hit By Panda and Penguin Recovers

Penguin Recovery

If you know me at all or have read my column over the years, you know I’m an inquisitive guy. Needless to say, I had some serious questions. What was going on?  Why did a site hit by Penguin recover during a Panda update? Sure, the site was originally hit by Panda and Penguin, but are they related at all? If a site is hit by both, does Panda bubble up to Penguin and make sure Penguin-related issues are resolved? I don’t have the answers, but I would sure love to know.

Again, we made the same changes to all three domains soon after the Panda update on April 27th. All three domains had the same structure, navigation, affiliate setup, types of pages, etc. Two came back at the same time, while the third didn’t budge (the one hit by Penguin). There were no major differences between the three domains with regard to Panda. The only difference was the Penguin situation with the third domain.

Dealing With Algorithm Updates = Tough Stuff

Dealing with major algorithm updates that crush sites is tough stuff. Again, read my post about a company that got hammered by Panda, that did all the right things, but still had to wait six months to recover. The fact of the matter is that there’s not a 10-step process to recovery. You need a deep analysis, the right SEO minds working on the case, and then a swift and precise execution. Then you need to wait and hope the domains recover. It’s not fun. So, I think it’s important to understand what happened with the third site I mentioned above.

Don’t get me wrong, we are beyond excited that all three domains are back. We just want to know more about Pandeguin, and how the third site recovered from Penguin during a Panda update—OK, that last line made me sound insane … only Google can do that to you. 🙂

Here are the core questions I had after the recovery. Again, I don’t have the answers, but my hope is that this case study could help your own recovery efforts by understanding what is possible outside of an official Penguin refresh/update:

  • Was there a Penguin refresh during the last Panda update?
  • Are Panda and Penguin related? Did the bad link situation have to be resolved before the site could recover from Panda? i.e. Does Panda bubble up to Penguin?
  • Did the reconsideration request expedite Penguin recovery? This is just speculation, but was the site cleared and added to a recovery queue (and then released during the next Panda update)? Remember the recent news about Google tricking SEO’s via rank transition? Hey, it’s possible … also, the reconsideration request was submitted only 12 days before Panda 3.9.1.
  • Was this just another algorithm update by Google (one of hundreds) that impacted the domain based on all the work that had been done? Read more about the Bigfoot Update by Pete Meyers. The key point is that we shouldn’t focus on just the cute black-and-white animals that Google tells us about. 🙂

The Net-Net

I wish I had more answers for you, but I don’t. The one thing I can tell you is that all three domains are now back. They all recovered from Panda and Penguin, and my client now has a solid SEO platform to build upon, which is exactly what they needed to grow their business.

Beyond the questions I listed above, there are some important lessons from this example. My client didn’t put band aids on the situation. They wanted a long-term plan and stated that from the beginning. They refined all three sites on several levels, and they moved fast. They cleaned up their link profile, which will help them defend against future Penguin updates.

Now that my client has a strong platform for SEO, we can put away the CSI badges, the Penguin traps, and bamboo shoots. That said, those items won’t be kept too far away. It’s important for everyone involved to remember the past few months of algo combat and recovery—it will surely help guide future strategies.

Image Credit: Shutterstock / Neil Bradfield

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  • Great in-depth write-up Glenn. I think the first thing we (SEO’ers) need to do is analyze the domain prior to constructing the long term goals. It never have occurred to me to check into it but it looks like it would have saved some time.

    • Thanks Nathan. And you’re absolutely right about that. One thing I always recommend is to heavily analyze any domain you are looking to register. You can inherit a bad SEO situation if you don’t (like my client did).

      I didn’t ask this client about that, since I never thought for a second that they didn’t own the domain from the start. Needless to say, I explained to the CEO that he should ping me before registering any new domains. 🙂

  • Kevin

    I also have a new site that was hit by both panda and penguin. Changes made and waiting patiently.

    It’s possible that your recovery efforts will increase the traffic to the third site. The issues that caused Panda might have been holding back the site from ranking as it should pre-panda.

    So…. when Penguin refreshes, you might see a further boost in traffic.

    • Hi Kevin. First, I’m sorry to hear you were hit by Pandeguin. I know how frustrating that can be. Second, all three sites have come back strong. I truly feel as if the third site has come back from both Panda and Penguin as much as it could have. It should be interesting to see what happens when there is an official Penguin update.

      Regardless, we are thrilled to have all three domains back. It’s just really odd to have a Penguin helped by a Panda. 🙂

      • Kevin

        Can you do a comparison to see if it’s ranking for more or for different keywords ..before penalty and after recovery.

      • Kevin, we can definitely do that and have been comparing timeframes. But you have to remember that the site was hit by Panda as well. We made a number of changes to the site that is impacting older content. It’s not an apples to apples comparison. I explained this in my post about Panda recovery (which I linked to above). You can check that out to learn more.

        The net net is that the domain has recovered from both Panda and Penguin, and can now be the solid SEO platform that my client needs. Many keywords came back during the latest update. I hope that helps.

  • Thanks for sharing!

    You wouldn´t be able to disclose what your (roughly) did on “addressing engagement issues, addressing affiliate problems, refining the navigation”?

  • Very well written case study that shows all the work that we do as SEO detectives 🙂

    Thanks for sharing

    • Thanks James, I appreciate it. We did some serious SEO detective work when working on the third domain. Now I’m thinking about starting a web-based show call CSI Princeton. 🙂 On a serious note, the hard detective work paid off, as we uncovered how the spammy link situation occurred. And it was all documented via email. It was pretty amazing.

  • Chris Scott

    Hi Glenn, great article with some very useful information. I had a manual spam action penalty for unnatural links on my website that through a detailed reconsideration to Google I got revoked on August 13th.

    However as yet I have seen no improvement in the SERP’s.

    Do you have any experience of how long it should take for the effect of a revoked manual penalty to be seen?

    • Thanks Chris. I’m glad you found my post valuable. So, you submitted a reconsideration request, heard back that the manual action would be removed, but didn’t see any changes rankings-wise? How long ago was that? If you want to contact me directly to provide more details, then you can email me via the address listed on my site. Thanks again.

      • Chris Scott

        Yeah, Google revoked the penalty on August 13th and state “It may take some time before our indexing and ranking systems are updated to reflect the new status of your site.” But I’ve seen no improvement in over 2 weeks now, so I have no idea how long ‘some time’ is.

  • This is one of the most helpful articles I have read thus far on penalty recovery (be it of whatever stripe). I very much appreciate your thoroughness here. Too many times I’ve read negative diatribes and Google haters rant about how they tried to come back after a penalty and were unsuccessful. The difference that I see as you have elaborated so eloquently is that it was genuine, sincere, and extremely well-documented. And the attitude which you and your client conveyed in getting back in Google’s good graces is truly commendable. Sounds like a lot of hard work that was no doubt very fulfilling once you were awarded with the prize of reclaiming traffic that was lost to the flightless bird and the soft and fuzzy bear, lol.


    • Hey, thanks for your kind words Patrick. I appreciate it. We knew there was a lot of work to do, and we moved very quickly to implement changes. My client was a key part of making that happen. The CEO said from the start that they wanted to fix the problems quickly and build a long term plan. They didn’t want a “quick fix”, but wanted a solid SEO platform that they could build upon. I’m thrilled that all three domains are back, but still have some questions about the third domain. Overall, we are very happy. Thanks again.

  • What I am interested in is why were the sites hit by Panda? What was done to correct the Panda problem. Here is info about all that I know about Panda gained from how it has affected my site:

  • Hello, I think the third site was not hit by Penguin. In the analytics graph is possible to see the weekly pattern which is repeated every seven days. It must be not confused with Penguin.

    • Hey, thanks for your comment. After analyzing Webmaster Tools data (impressions, clicks, etc.) and Google Analytics data, it was clear that the third site took a hit on the 24th, in addition to the 19th and then the 27th. The other two domains did not.

      Also, the third domain was the only one with serious link issues (with regard to Penguin). These just weren’t sketchy links, they were organized link networks . Even more, the first two domains recovered on 6/25 from Panda, while the third didn’t recover at all, even when the same exact changes were made to all three domains (structure, navigation, affiliate setup, etc.) It was only when the Penguin situation was dealt with that the third domain came back.

      I hope that helps explain more about the situation.

  • John Mc.

    Hi Glenn. Thanks for sharing this experience, you did a great job. One of my main sites was also Pandeguined in the April’s updates, I’ve tried everything to recover it from its 70-80% traffic and SERP lost but not success so far. I’m wondering, how I can contact you to hire your services and do an excellent job just like you did with this client and how much it could cost? I think I’m done, no idea what else to do. Thanks.

    • John, I’m sorry to hear you were hit by Pandeguin. I know how frustrating that can be… You can email me via the contact email on my website. There’s a link to my site in my bio above. Thanks.

  • Great read, very long and in depth. The whole thing just seems a little crazy to me, I see a lot of webmasters revolting against these updates. That fact that the CEO had to go cleaning up after someone else’s mess is beyond a joke. It means that everyone is at risk from some very nasty blackhat tactics from their competitors. If you can remove all of your competition by using a spammy article spinner and pumping it full of your competitors links, no one is safe from being penalised by these insidious algorithms.

    • Thanks for your comment, and the CEO was not thrilled about the situation either. Hunting down the links, contacting the website owners, dealing with pushback, etc. was not fun. But, Bing already released a disavow tool and Google is working on one now. Actually, I have a feeling it’s very close… Negative SEO is a hot topic now, and the engines totally understand that.

      Regarding the algorithm updates in general, I mentioned above that it’s “tough stuff”. It really is… You need to analyze the situation, make hard decisions, implement changes quickly, and then hope for the best. We are thrilled that the three domains are back, but the battle scars run deep. 🙂

  • “The spammy links were all set up prior to my client owning the domain name.”

    I have definitely seen that happen before! When you purchase a site, you inherit all of its baggage; the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s why link audits are so important, especially if you buy into a domain or have a 3rd party provider managing your SEO. I’ve also talked with other site owners that never asked what their SEO provider was doing and then is dumbfounded and confused when their site gets a penalty.

  • i am glad someone write in detail about after effects of panda and penguin, i had same situation here my client site hit by penguin and we did the same thing, links extracting and then removing or what so ever it takes time but finally we succeed. and one more thing i read somewhere if you remove spammy links quickly then google will penalize your site and i think its true.
    In these situations i think most important thing is patience because the more you panic the more you into trouble . Enjoyed your article.


  • Thanks Glenn Gabe for the post. Recently the google algorithm changed and it make our seo results changed too. It is not easy to keep up with Google changes. Reading your post, i find some point that can help me adapt to Google.

  • Sid

    Glenn, interesting and in-depth article. I have been following your articles for some time and I can confidently say you an an seo expert. I always had this question I wanted to ask you: what kind of navigation structure do you implement on these affected sites?

  • Glen do you think negative seo is possible after penguin. If backlinks to a domain existing before transfer can effect its ranking then so can low level anchor text links made by its competitors.

    • Ash, I do believe it’s possible. I don’t think it’s easy, but I’ve been neck deep in many sites impacted by Penguin. If a site has a weak link profile, then it’s more susceptible to negative seo. If it’s more established, then it becomes harder to impact.

  • Hi Glenn,
    Very good article and congratulations for the whole bunch of professional wins :).
    I still have question though and would like to hear your opinion as I consider you as a very good professional in the industry.
    I have used all possible backlink profile tools and gathered as many backlink information as i can. There are some obvious bad links and obviously good links. But the quality of over 90% of links are questionable for me . So tell me please how do you define a good and a bad backlink?
    Regards, Suren